Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Medieval Studies

First Advisor

Dr. Eve Salisbury,

Second Advisor

Dr. Marjorie Harrington

Third Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth C. Teviotdale


Medieval literature, music theory, Boethius, Chaucer, Middle English

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Open Access


This study approaches three poems from the late medieval British Isles—the Middle English Breton lay Sir Orfeo, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice—through the lens of medieval music theory. The most important authority for medieval music theorists was the late antique philosopher Boethius, who held to a Neoplatonic philosophy of music that valued reason, theory, and contemplation of the music of the spheres. Later medieval theorists cited Boethius extensively while also adapting his thought to suit their own purposes. In particular, the early fourteenth-century French theorist Johannes de Grocheio, influenced by Aristotle, departed dramatically from Boethius by denying the existence of the music of the spheres, categorizing music according to its social function, and incorporating vernacular song into his theoretical system.

The three poems discussed in this thesis, while borrowing thematic and narrative material from Boethius, depart from his philosophy of music in ways that echo Grocheio. Sir Orfeo places performers at the top of the musical hierarchy, challenging Boethius’s elevation of theory over practice. Troilus and Criseyde suggests that the sensual pleasure provided by music can be good for its own sake, even apart from reason. And Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice severs music theory from moral virtue, undermining the Boethian project of musical education. All three texts navigate their Boethian inheritance with creativity and ingenuity that match Grocheio’s